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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, December 9, 2013

Do Pets or Humans Have ESP or Precognition?

Today's post is on a controversial topic I had hoped not to write about any more. But I am pretty much forced to think about this topic because of an uncanny and wildly improbable series of coincidences I have recently experienced, which I will discuss toward the end of this post.

The topic is whether humans or animals (or both) are able to acquire information in some abnormal paranormal way. Two possibilities are extrasensory perception (ESP) and precognition (somehow being able to sense the future).

There have actually been serious scientific studies done relating to precognition. A widely discussed example was a study by Daryl J. Bem, at a time when he was a psychology professor at Cornell University (he is now a professor emeritus at that Ivy League institution). Bem did experiments in which subjects sat in front of a computer showing two different curtain images side by side. The subjects were given the following explanation of how the experiment worked:

This is an experiment that tests for ESP. It takes about 20 minutes and is run
completely by computer. First you will answer a couple of brief questions.
Then, on each trial of the experiment, pictures of two curtains will appear on the screen
side by side. One of them has a picture behind it; the other has a blank wall. Your task is to click on the curtain that you feel has the picture behind it. The curtain will then open, permitting you to see if you selected the correct curtain. There will be 36 trials in all.

The pictures used in the experiment could either be erotic or nonerotic. The results of the experiment are described below:

Across all 100 sessions, participants correctly identified the future position of the erotic
pictures significantly more frequently than the 50% hit rate expected by chance: 53.1%...
In contrast, their hit rate on the nonerotic pictures did not differ significantly from chance: 49.8%

Small as it may seem, this 53% success rate is fantastically improbable given the fact that 3600 trials were done in this experiment. The “Law of Large Numbers” indicates that whenever you try a huge number of random trials, there is only a very tiny chance that you will get a result much different from what is expected by chance.

There have been some attempts to replicate Bem's results which were not successful. However, according to this site PhD Dean Radin (author of the interesting book Supernormal) has recently tweeted: “A soon to be published meta-analysis of 80-some replications of the 'Bem effect' shows a highly significant overall effect.”

Less controversial than the idea of precognition is the hypothesis of ESP, that minds can somehow acquire knowledge through some paranormal method similar to telepathy. Experiments have been done on this topic for more than 100 years. In recent years experiments have used a technique called the ganzfeld technique, in which a person has his auditory and sensory inputs restricted, and is then tested for ESP.

A ganzfeld experiment is one in which a test for extra-sensory perception is combined with sensory deprivation achieved through methods such as cutting a ping-pong ball in half and taping it over someone's eyes, and having someone wear an earphone transmitting white noise. In these ESP experiments, the expected chance hit rate (matching of a user's selection and a random target) is 25%. But as wikipedia reports here, “In 2010, Lance Storm, Patrizio Tressoldi, and Lorenzo Di Risio analyzed 29 ganzfeld studies from 1997 to 2008. Of the 1,498 trials, 483 produced hits, corresponding to a hit rate of 32.2%.” That success rate of 32.2% is hugely above the expected by-chance success rate of 25%. The review article can be found here. The probability of such a hit rate occurring by chance is incredibly low.

So there may be evidence for ESP in humans, and possibly also evidence for precognition. In fact, biologist Rupert Sheldrake thinks there is evidence for psychic abilities in dogs. As described here Sheldrake has done research suggesting that some dogs can anticipate when their owner is coming home, by sitting near the door a few minutes before the owner arrives.

Sheldrake has proposed a rather interesting but highly controversial theory that there are what he calls “morphic fields” in nature that animals can respond to. He suggests the theory might explain some puzzling animal behavior such as the ability of birds to fly in such well-coordinated V formations.

Birds in formation: how do they do it?

Sheldrake's ideas are supported by anecdotal evidence that animals become agitated prior to earthquakes and other natural catastrophes.

Prior to a few days ago, my natural tendency was to regard Sheldrake's idea of animal ESP with great skepticism. But then I had three days of experiences that made me wonder. You'll just have to take my word for it that the account below is accurate (I have nothing to gain from lying, as I don't make any money from this blog.)

Last Wednesday my daughter told me she was going outside of our apartment. For the next 70 minutes I did not think of her, but then I thought to myself: where is she? Three seconds later I heard the door buzzer – it was my daughter. I remarked to her about the coincidence, mentioning (in a rather laughing voice) Sheldrake's research claiming that dogs anticipate when their owners will return, by sitting next to the door a few minutes before the owner returns. I was kind of comparing myself to the dogs in Sheldrake's research.

The next day (Thursday) I saw my daughter leave in the morning, and I did not think about my daughter between 1:00 and 5:50 PM. Then at 5:50 PM I asked aloud where she was. Three seconds later the door buzzer sounded – it was my daughter.

The next day (Friday) my daughter again left in the morning, and I did not think about my daughter between noon and 3:30. Then suddenly at 3:30 I recall the previous two day's coincidences and think to myself: I wonder whether it will happen again when my daughter comes home today? Three seconds later the door buzzer rings – it's my daughter.

I estimate the odds of this series of events occurring by chance is about 1 in a million. It requires about a 1 in 100 coincidence each day, but the chance of it happening on three consecutive days is about 1 in 100 times 1 in 100 times 1 in 100, or about 1 in a million.

Now that does not prove anything. Events with a probability of one in a million sometimes occur, as any Powerball lottery winner will testify. But this series of coincidences makes me wonder whether there is some truth to claims that dogs (or humans) are able to somehow sense in some paranormal way when family members are about to return to their homes.

I would be interested to hear of any reader's experiences along these lines, either with pets or humans.

Postscript: An extremely interesting case of a possibly paranormal animal is described here. At a nursing home in Rhode Island, a cat named Oscar reportedly has the habit of jumping on the beds of patients, but only those who are about to die, between 1 and 4 hours before they die. This supposedly has occurred some 50 times.